Backstabbing, Shagging and Petty Hate: The Casual Vacancy on HBO

Watching the HBO adaptation of JK Rowlings fabulous novel The Casual Vacancy is a very particular kind of pleasure. There is a wincing kind of beauty in the attempt to accurately and honestly portray the most odious and despicable of human behaviors. You want to look away, but only because the arrow lands too close to home.

Rowling’s novel received a lukewarm reception in 2012, both heavily praised in certain quarters and decried in others. Too bleak. Too unrelenting. Too dark. There is a great deal of irony in the fact that people react more negatively towards a book about the petty jealousies and crude mechanics of class small-town class warfare than they do towards a series of novels about a maniac mass murderer who feeds people to snakes.

Still…too close to home, I suppose.

I, for one, loved the novel. Rowling does too. In an interview with the New York Times, Rowling stated that the books she was most proud of writing were the first and last Harry Potter novels, and The Casual Vacancy.

She’s right to be proud.

The three-part mini-series has good reason to be proud as well. Vacancy is a hefty, intricate novel with Dickensian sprawl, packed with a multitude of characters that roam across 500 pages. To condense such a work into a mere three episodes is quite a feat.

vacancyVacancy takes place in the quiet—but hardly idyllic—parish of Pagford. We get plenty of scenery in the show: long shots of lush vegetation, aerial overviews of a shining city on a hill, gentle streams of clear blue water. Though the story has a Dickensian feel, the setting is all Thomas Hardy. Which serves to create a rather blistering contrast between the outer beauty of the landscape and the inner dark of Rowling’s characters.

There isn’t a single likable character in Rowling’s novel (save, perhaps, the five-year-old Robbie Wheedon, who is too young to play much of a role but not too young to sacrifice on the alter of storytelling). Because they can’t get into the heads of the characters they display, film and television demand an empathetic center for the stories they tell. In Hollywood, this generally means rounding off the cruder edges and centering the tale around someone beautiful. In the case of Vacancy, director Jonny Campbell split the difference by giving us the beautiful, but still edgy, Abigail Lawrie.

Lawrie plays teenage Krystal Wheedon, a poor girl from the wrong side of town whose mother is a methadone addict. She spends much of Rowling’s novel looking after her younger brother (the aforementioned Robbie), and being pursued by the interminably horny Stuart “Fats” Wall, whose father happens to be a school administrator.

Lawrie has received a good deal of credit for her portrayal of Krystal Wheedon, as she should. She pulls off something we are starting to see more and more of (finally), but that is still all too rare: an empowered female character who is not defined by her shitty circumstances or her desperate need for finding a man. Lawrie plays Krystal with a dynamic blend of strength and vulnerability, so that even in moments when she seems the most taken-advantage-of, we feel that she is still in control of her own destiny.

A crude example (and there is plenty of crudity in Vacancy) is when Krystal jerks off Fats in the Pagford Public Library. Unable to contain himself, Fats moans loudly and ejaculates all over a copy of Kierkegaard (I’m sure that’s a British joke of some sort).

“You’re amazing,” Fats tells her.

“Yeah, all lads say that after they’ve just jizzed,” she retorts, and walks out of the library.

vacancy 3

But Lawrie is only one character in a stunning cast. Indeed, the real winners in Vacancy are Olivia Scott-Webb and Lucy Bevan, the casting directors, who ably fashioned a supremely talented ensemble. It is sometimes difficult to believe that such a tiny island (Britain) can produce so much phenomenal acting talent, even if it is the birthplace of Shakespeare.

Michael Gambon, as always, stands out, not least for the fact that he has shifted from playing the lovable and quirky Albus Dumbledore in Rowling’s Harry Potter saga to the nasty and conniving Howard Mollison in Vacancy. If the lack of robes and a wand keep you from picking him out right at first, Gambon’s voice immediately jogs the memory.

It is rather unnerving hearing the voice of Dumbledore rattle on with lines like: “Look at him, who’s he think he is, Top Gun? Loser!”

Even more vile and fun to watch is Howard’s wife, Shirley, played by the brilliant Julia McKenzie. Again, it is a bit of shock switching from McKenzie’s delightful and homespun portrayal of Miss Marple to her sinister embodiment of the amoral Shirley Mollison.

After her daughter in law’s lingerie shop goes out of business, Shirley approaches her and says:

“That’s good news. A weigh from all our shoulders. Well, don’t dwell, dear. The best way to deal with failure is to learn from it. So I’m told. Set your sights a bit lower. Concentrate on what you’re best at. It’s never too late to find out what that might be.”

Ouch, bitch.

Ultimately, Vacancy ends on a sour note, though Campbell’s adaptation offers a less-grim ending than Rowling’s novel. While the book ends with two deaths, the mini series ends with only one (little Robbie survives on TV, if not in the pages of literature). Krystal’s death is ultimately given a whitewash, no doubt to encourage our sympathy. Here she drowns while (she thinks) attempting to save her brother (he’s already been saved). In the book, she commits suicide after Robbie drowns in the river while Krystal and Fats shag it out in some bushes. Additionally, Campbell adds some bit of comeuppance for the Mollisons, who receive little under Rowling’s watch.

Like any adaptation from book to screen, much is lost along the way. In the case of Vacancy, much of the deeper dynamics between children and parents is sacrificed, especially in the character of Sukhvinder Jawanda, who wanders through the mini series in her colorful headphones and says but one line in the whole of the show. You’d never know that she takes up a good deal of space in Rowling’s novel.

Even so, this is a fine work, filled with an excellent cast that clearly enjoys the opportunity to get a bit nasty. Humanity isn’t all roses, after all. And while I wouldn’t suggest a steady diet of Vacancy and its ilk, it certainly is worth the time.


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